How old is too old to begin exercising? Recent findings from our group suggest that middle age is not only a good time to get started with exercise training, but it also can help you overcome the negative impact of years of being inactive or sedentary.
There is a growing recognition of the negative impacts of sedentary behavior in academic research. My team of researchers has previously demonstrated that “sedentary behavior” compounds the effect of aging on cardiovascular function and increases the risk of heart disease. We have also shown that very high levels of exercise training performed over a lifetime can offset these effects, and preserve cardiovascular function to levels similar to healthy young individuals. Importantly, evidence from bedrest studies, which are useful models of accelerated aging characteristics, suggest that exercise training is an extremely effective countermeasure to the effects of inactivity on cardiovascular health.
Based on these studies, we decided to investigate whether exercise training could in fact overcome the effects of sedentary behavior on cardiovascular health. We recruited a group of healthy, but sedentary middle-aged individuals to participate in a two-year exercise training study. Each participant was prescribed an individualized exercise program, based on their fitness levels as summarized in Table 1. The amount of exercise prescribed was progressed gradually from three sessions of moderate exercise per week for the first couple of months after which high intensity interval training was included. We employed this strategy for several reasons, including:
1) to build an exercise routine, and
2) to minimize the risk of musculoskeletal injury.
Table 1. Weekly exercise program to improve cardiovascular health
One high-intensity aerobic session per week, e.g. 4×4 intervals – 4 sets of 4 minutes of exercise at 90-95% of maximum heart rate followed by 3 minutes of active recovery at 60-75% of maximum heart rate
Two or three days a week of moderate intensity exercise (where exercisers sweat but can still carry on a conversation), for 30 minutes
At least one long session of moderate intensity exercise, such as an hour of brisk walking, cycling, tennis or dancing
At least one weekly strength session
What did we observe? After two years of training, cardiovascular health was dramatically improved! Fitness increased by almost 20 percent, meaning on average the cardiovascular age of participants decreased by about five - ten years. Importantly, no one in the exercise training group decreased fitness – although of course there was variability in the response. We also observed a large (about 25 percent) reduction in heart stiffness.
What does this mean for you? This study demonstrates that exercise can improve your health and quality of life, no matter what age you are. It also provides support for the current physical activity guidelines. If you have been thinking about starting an exercise program, there is no better time to begin than today.
Dr. Erin Howden is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, Australia. She completed her PhD at the University of Queensland, and then took a post doctoral position at the Institute of Exercise and Environmental Medicine in Dallas, Texas, where she worked in Benjamin Levine's laboratory. Dr. Howden's current research seeks to determine whether exercise training can improve physiological function in various diseases, which represent an advanced ageing phenotype.